Teamwork, fun and food a fine recipe for the fair

Community leaders dust off culinary skills in front of a crowd at the county fair


Against a backdrop of whirling rides and blinking midway lights, Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown -- wearing an apron, a puffy chef's hat and her signature high-heeled shoes -- stood on the patio of the 4-H activities building at the Howard County Fairgrounds and intently plucked green basil leaves from their stems.

Nearby, County Executive James N. Robey peeled a cucumber, West Friendship Fire Chief Mickey Day chopped onions and Howard County Farm Bureau President Phil Jones tucked tinfoil around his pile of onions.

The community leaders dusted off their culinary skills in front of more than 60 people Thursday night to chop, dice, grill and garnish in an "iron chef" cooking contest modeled after the popular Food Network show imported from Japan.

The point, said Madeleine Greene, a cooperative extension educator who helped organize the event, "is to promote what a great thing we have here in Howard County." She said that refers to the locally grown food, the fair itself and the people who turned out for the event.

It was also an opportunity to promote the county's Farm-City Week, scheduled for Sept. 23 through Oct. 7, which includes farm tours, educational events and family activities intended to draw suburbanites to learn more about local farms.

For the chefs' contest, each participant was given a pile of county-grown produce donated by Tranquility Farm in Marriottsville, two steaks donated by Safeway, a grill and one hour to complete the meal.

But the rules made some concessions for the relatively inexperienced cooks. They were allowed to decide on their recipes before the contest and to bring additional ingredients and cooking implements. Each chef also was allowed up to two assistants -- and most chose to bring a ringer.

As the contest began, Brown worked with Chick Rhodehamel, the Columbia Association vice president for open-space management, to put a rub on the steaks while Jason McIntosh, executive chef at Clyde's restaurant in Columbia, cut cucumbers.

Brown said the rub was Rhodehamel's favorite recipe using brown sugar and spicy flavorings, and it was the starting point of their presentation of steak on a bed of grilled vegetables. The team's side dish involved tomatoes cut in half, lightly grilled and stuffed with cheese and basil.

Brown said later that she should get extra points because her outfit was purposely coordinated with her blue-and-yellow tablecloth, dishes and flower arrangement.

Jones started his meal with a tenderizing technique he technically called "poking the meat" with a fork. With help from a neighbor, Bob Gordon of Sykesville, Jones stuck to a straightforward menu of marinated grilled steak and a side of squash, green peppers and tomatoes cooked with mozzarella cheese.

"It's a lot of fun, lighthearted, no pressure, at least not on me," Jones said.

With help from Wendy Rhule, catering manger for Belmont Conference Center, Robey, the returning champion, took a more creative approach. The duo made steak with sweet chili marinade, rosemary ginger sweet potatoes and watermelon and corn salsa, as well as a grilled romaine salad.

When Brown realized that Robey had brought along the ingredients for dessert -- a variation on s'mores with chocolate wafers, Nutella, raspberry jam and grilled marshmallows -- she asserted that her team was "staying away from empty calories."

Robey countered: "I don't know if that will win you a cooking contest."

Day asked for help from the owner and the executive chef of the Crab Shanty Restaurant in Ellicott City: Eric King and Keith Watson.

The team prepared steak with a coffee rub on top of a grilled potato salad and garnished with a reduced berry sauce. It also made a crab salad with grilled vegetables.

Melvin Thompson, a vice president with the Restaurant Association of Maryland, was a judge, and he said creativity and teamwork were important. Compared with the inaugural contest last year, Thompson said, "I see a lot of new and interesting things this year. It's going to be tough to judge."

In the end, Thompson, Lee Jarvis, supervisor of the gourmet meat department at the Enchanted Forest Safeway, and Donna Ellis, food writer for Patuxent Publishing Co., recognized every team.

Brown's group won for best teamwork; Jones was recognized for his "simple and casual use of a grill;" Robey had the best vegetables; and Day had the best beef.

Day's beef, rubbed with ground espresso, cumin and other spices, also put him over the top for the title of grand champion.

"My goal was to beat the returning champion, Jim Robey," Day said. "We had to pull out all the stops."

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